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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    From neighborhood park to McKale center

    Gordon Bates
    Gordon Bates / Arizona Daily Wildcat

    Niya Butts rolled into basketball.

    “My first love in terms of anything athletic was skating,” said the Arizona’s women’s basketball coach. “I use to roller skate all the time and I had these big, iron skates. I didn’t have the ones with the rubber wheels — too expensive — and they were a size too big.”

    Butts grew up in Americus, Ga. One day, at 8 years old, she strapped on her skates and proceeded on her usual route. For the hundredth time, she passed a group of guys playing ball at the neighborhood park, on a blacktop court enclosed by a chain-link fence. This time, instead of rolling by, Butts decided to take off her skates.

    “I would see them playing over there, mostly guys, and I just went over there one day, picked up a basketball and I liked it,” Butts said. “It came naturally to me, it was never one of those things that was awkward. I picked up a basketball and naturally started to dribble.”

    Butts grew up surrounded by brothers, so she had no problem playing pickup ball with the guys. Her career started in that park, moved to recreational ball and progressed into middle school and high school. College basketball was her ticket out of Americus.

    “I played with a lot of talented people who didn’t finish school, because of different circumstances or got pulled in the wrong direction,” Butts said. “For me, I was always trying to not get caught up in those kind of things and I think it was a part of the reason why I am so driven and was so driven. It’s because I didn’t want to become the person on the porch saying what they should have done or could have done.”

    Butts accepted an offer to attend the University of Tennessee from Pat Summitt, who became a mentor and friend.

    Butts was a four-year letter winner, two-time NCAA Champion in 1997 and 1998, and helped the Lady Vols win three Southeastern Conference titles in 1998, 1999 and 2000.

    In addition to her athletic awards, she was a three-time Academic All-SEC recipient and received Tennessee’s Academic Achiever of the Week four times.

    She graduated from Tennessee in 2000 with a bachelor’s degree in social work and a minor in psychology. In 2002 she earned a master’s degree in education from Tennessee Tech.

    She planned to open a private practice as a clinical social worker.
    But she couldn’t leave basketball.

    A change in plans

    Butts resisted coaching despite coaches and teammates pushing her to consider it.

    “I would always say I didn’t want to coach,” Butts said. “When I graduated, I went to grad school, and I was also coaching when I was in grad school, but it was more of a means so I could go to grad school.”

    But the more time she spent away from the team, the more she missed it.

    “During that time when I would be in class, away from practice and away from the team, I started to realize how much I really did enjoy it,” Butts said. “In so many words, how much I really didn’t need it, because I was under this impression that I was going to go on and do XYZ, and I’m only using this coaching thing right now as my vessel to accomplish other things. So, that was a point in my first year of grad school that I realized that hey, this is what I want to do.”

    Following an assistant position at Tennessee Tech, Butts became an assistant coach at Michigan State in 2002 and then Kentucky. In 2007, Butts was promoted to Kentucky’s associate head coaching position.

    A year later, Butts accepted an offer from Arizona. She is the UA’s first black, female head coach.

    “It feels pretty good to be a coach at the University of Arizona period,” Butts said. “But certainly any time you can be the first at anything it’s always an honor and you certainly want to make sure you represent yourself well, in a positive manner.”

    Butts’ staff praised her leadership.

    “Sometimes you forget you’re actually at work, because she makes it a lot of fun,” said assistant coach E.C. Hill. “We work hard and play hard as well. She gives me a lot of liberty to make input with the guards. She lets me do my thing, she gives me a lot of leeway in preparing me to be a head coach one day.”

    For many of the players, Butts was a primary reason for choosing Arizona.

    “I would say she (Butts) has helped me a lot, not only with basketball, but other things like going through life as a college student,” said junior guard Davellyn Whyte.

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